Universal access to education is possible in this online age

The average cost of textbooks for a college student in the United States is $1200 per year. The significance of such a figure is striking. How many students at Boise State University and other Idaho colleges have dropped out due to what should be marginal costs?

Michael Strickland

For example, I coached Mary, a student who was an award winning member of the College of Western Idaho Speech and debate team. When I saw her recently (after a few years) I said “how’s school?” assuming she had moved on to Boise State or another university (as virtually all speech and debate award winners do). She said that she had dropped out. The reason: She was $500 short (which could be the amount of one semester of textbooks). She had tapped out all of her loans, grants, friends and family. This promising student delayed  a full college education over a deficit of only $500.

Stories like this one are far too common. The IDEA Shop at Boise State is a hub for discussion, resources and learning communities that foster a solution, Open Educational Resources (OER). These educational materials — text, audio, video, images, and more — that are in the public domain or shared under an open license, such as a Creative Commons license. According to the website, “depending on the license, OER can be copied, revised, remixed, adapted, and shared. OER comes in many genres, including syllabi, curricula, lecture notes, quizzes and exams, animation, and even entire textbooks.”

Universal access to education is possible in this online age. However, increasingly restrictive copyright laws and incompatible technologies present barriers and hurdles. OER teaching, learning, and research materials are found in any medium and reside in the public domain or have been released under an open license that permits their free use and re-purposing by others.

OER is not only vital, but is at the forefront of the movement toward making college accessible for all learners. Writing at Openpraxis.org, Michael Troy Martin and others note that “students have reported that they make decisions on which courses to take based on the specific cost of textbooks.” It also may contribute to the sustainability of higher education institutions. Research by John Hilton and others suggests that “if students who use OER drop classes at lower rates than their peers who use traditional textbooks, then institutions of higher education stand to gain financially through OER adoption, as they will retain tuition money that they would otherwise need to refund”

Scholars from Brigham Young University conducted the  Kaleidoscope Open Course Initiative (KOCI) with three goals: (1) eliminate textbook costs as a barrier to student success, (2) improve the quality of course designs in order to increase student success, and (3) create a collaborative community to share learning and investment in the project.” They concluded:

OER can save students, parents and taxpayers significant amounts of money. An average textbook costs  $90.61, so a full-time student would spend over $900 on textbooks each year. Broad adoption of OER makes that cost zero for every student impacted. If these savings were realized by only 5 percent of the 20,994,113 students in the United States who enrolled in college during a recent fall semester, the total savings would be approximately one billion dollars per year.

Boise State’s mission includes accommodating and making education possible for large numbers of students from Idaho. How many Idaho students have dropped out over $500? It is time for faculty to invest in, study and create as many OER materials as possible.

Written by Michael Strickland. He teaches at Boise State University.

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